The first European squatters settled in the valleys and plains north of the Snowy Mountains in the 1820s, though until 1900 this remained a remote rural area. When the Australian colonies united in the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, a capital city had to be chosen, with Melbourne and Sydney the two obvious and eager rivals. After much wrangling, and partly in order to avoid having to decide on one of the two, it was agreed to establish a brand-new capital instead. In 1909, Limestone Plains, south of Yass, was chosen out of several possible sites as the future seat of the Australian government. An area of 2368 square kilometres was excised from the state of New South Wales and named the Australian Capital Territory, or ACT. The name for the future capital was supposedly taken from the language of local Aborigines: Canberra – the meeting place.
In 1912 Walter Burley Griffin, an American landscape architect from Chicago, won the international competition for the design of the future Australian capital. His plan envisaged a garden city for about 25,000 people based in five main centres, each with separate city functions, located on three axes: land, water and municipal. Roads were to be in concentric circles, with arcs linking the radiating design.
Construction started in 1913, but political squabbling and the effects of World War I, the Depression and World War II prevented any real progress being made until 1958, when growth began in earnest. In 1963 the Molonglo River was dammed to form long, artificial Lake Burley Griffin; the city centre, Civic, coalesced along the north shore to face parliamentary buildings to the south; while a host of outlying satellite suburbs, each connected to Civic by a main road cutting through the intervening bushland, took shape. The population grew rapidly, from fifteen thousand in 1947 to nearly four hundred thousand today, completely outstripping Burley Griffin’s original estimates – though Canberra’s decentralized design means that the city never feels crowded.
Being such an overtly planned place populated by civil servants and politicians, Canberra is in many ways a city in search of a soul: while there are all the galleries, museums and attractions that there should be, many seem to exist simply because it would be ridiculous to have omitted them from a national capital. Still, several key sights definitely justify staying a couple of nights, particularly the War Memorial, the extraordinary, partly subterranean Parliament House, the National Gallery and the National Botanic Gardens. With so much of the city being dotted with trees, visiting the bush might seem a bit pointless, but the Brindabella Ranges and the Namadgi National Park on the outskirts definitely warrant a short visit.
Canberra’s nightlife – in term time at least – is alive and kicking. The two universities here (and the Duntroon Military Academy) mean there’s a large and lively student population (good news for those who have student cards, as most attractions offer hefty discounts), and the city also claims to have more restaurants per capita than any other in Australia, which is saying something. Canberra also holds the dubious title of Australia’s porn capital, due to its liberal licensing laws, which legalize and regulate the sex industry.